Friday, May 04, 2012

Mean Girls (2004)

USA/Canada, 97 minutes
Director: Mark Waters
Writers: Rosalind Wiseman, Tina Fey
Photography: Daryn Okada
Music: Rolfe Kent
Editor: Wendy Greene Bricmont
Cast: Lindsay Lohan, Rachel McAdams, Tina Fey, Tim Meadows, Amy Poehler, Ana Gasteyer, Lacey Chabert, Lizzy Caplan, Daniel Franzese, Neil Flynn, Jonathan Bennett, Amanda Seyfried, Rajiv Surendra

The surly clerk in need of a shave I bought a used copy of this from held it aloft at the counter and announced emphatically to me that it's way better than most people think. I was heartened by this (though glad the store was empty) as the one time I had seen it had been under strange circumstances, alone in a Portland motel room, with a full day ahead of me and not much to do before I could leave. I lapped it up the way I do Lifetime movies when I'm sick, the way I do comfort food when I'm depressed. I came back to it thinking of it as a guilty pleasure. But a nagging part of me insisted that, as the clerk said, it's actually better than its reputation as market-tested teen product hitting a sweet spot of American money-making, high school kids in the 'burbs.

I haven't paid much attention to the tribulations of Lindsay Lohan, which has probably helped me remain relatively immune from a celebrity tragedy narrative that no doubt intrudes, for those in the know, all over this otherwise fine high school teen comedy. I tend to think of it as a Tina Fey picture—her creative energy is easily recognized, the way she can stuff a handful of surprising gags into a brief scene, the coolly observational point of view, the niceness lurking under the mockery, and a uniquely insightful focus on coming-of-age experiences, mostly for girls and women.

Director Mark Waters is responsible for a handful of other pictures, most of which I don't know—Mr. Popper's Penguins, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, The Spiderwick Chronicles, going all the way back to the only one I've seen, 1997's The House of Yes, his first, which I remember now only as a forgettable vehicle for Parker Posey, an "it" girl of the moment.

It's the screenplay that makes this work as much as anything, performing like a clockwork engine of steady laughs and narrative momentum, a constant stream of inventive humor, and ultimately a very sweet coming-of-age story masquerading as a revenge farce played out in high school drag. It's classic high school teen comedy, with the usual sharp if familiar scrutiny of social landscapes, such as they are: the cool kids, nerds, jocks, and burnouts, further subdivided into the ludicrous minutiae of class consciousness, such as Asian nerds and Asian cool kids. There's a disaffected and depressed goth chick character named Janis Ian, which is just about perfect. The mise en scene of the various party and prom scenes are straight out of '80s teen comedies, as they must be. It is a pleasure to return to them, however briefly.

The new kid who wanders into all this in heartland Illinois is Cady Heron (played by Lohan), who has an unusual and interesting background, the only daughter of adventurous academic parents living in Africa on anthropological expeditions and home-schooled by them. The picture deals with home-schooling stereotypes immediately; it's pointed and funny, and helps put one instantly on the same page as the filmmakers.

As the new kid, Cady has the usual problems fitting in, but then suddenly finds herself plunged into the kinds of unpleasant scheming that chafes at every high school kid, finding herself befriending all at once both the outcasts and the popular girls from wealthy families, known as "the Plastics." Soon she allows herself to be embroiled in complex revenge fantasies of the outcasts on the Plastics, even as she grows increasingly seduced by her own series of triumphs in terms of personal popularity.

One of the best points about Fey's screenplay is the way that it subtly but persistently enlists us to be on Cady's side as the inevitable forces at play in this high school begin to clash with one another. The further Cady gets with her revenge plot the more corrupt she becomes—and we're not so far behind, cheering her on. After all, she's helping the outcasts, right?

Lohan is actually pretty good here, playing just passively enough to make the complex changes she undergoes believable. Cady is so naturally engaging that it takes awhile to catch on how much she is changing. Moments keep arriving when you see it plain, even as she keeps operating within the social system like an implacable runaway train. Yet every step of all her changes is never cheated on—you see all the events that are changing her even as they happen.

The pace is rapid-fire quick but lucid. From shifting into the heads of characters to enter their fantasies—Cady's fellow students often remind her of the behavior of wild animals in Africa, for example, an easy point but one made inventively and with a light touch here—to nimble split-screens to illustrate the complexities of teen phone conversations, the twists and turns of all the characters' various attempts to control their environments, the choices they make and the consequences they face or don't face, keep coming at one and they are rarely predictable.

And when all else fails go for the laughs. That's what I love about Tina Fey. She is a classic comic in her willingness to do anything for a laugh, such as when she packs one brief scene with dumb-blonde Karen Smith (played by Amanda Seyfried) full of dumb-blonde gags: "I'm kind of psychic. I have a fifth sense. It's like I have ESPN or something. My breasts can always tell when it's gonna rain. Well, they can tell it's raining."

The revenge (and Cady's corruption) is complete by the second act, but there's yet another revenge dish still to be served, accompanied by an anarchic breakdown in the school—I love the way that plays as more or less full-scale riot. In the end Cady redeems herself and the nerds and really the whole school and it's a very nice thing (if unbelievable, but you want to believe it), peace upon the land. Making a sweet ending something other than saccharine is something else Tina Fey does really well.

Top 10 of 2004
It might have been me, but you can see that I was more enamored with breezy comedies in 2004 than anything else—it was a good crop of them, for one thing, but maybe there was something about that year for me that made comedies more suitable to my eye. I do think it turned out to be a pretty good year for the movies, particularly if you appreciate the teen comedy.
1. Sideways
2. Before Sunset
3. Mean Girls
4. Shaun of the Dead
5. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
6. Napoleon Dynamite
7. 2046
8. Super Size Me
9. DIG!
10. The Staircase

Didn't like so much: The Bourne Supremacy; Hotel Rwanda; Kinsey; The Manchurian Candidate; Metallica: Some Kind of Monster

Gaps: Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer; The Libertine; Moolaade; Tropical Malady; Vera Drake


  1. Picking up where I left off last fall. I remember liking this more than expected when I saw it as well. Has Fey done any movies since, or just focused on 30 Rock? I'll have to head over to imdb to find out, but nothing comes to mind.

  2. Pretty much just 30 Rock for writing, plus a few acting or voice gigs. I like the TV show a lot, but would like to see her make movies more frequently.